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Ionic Column - September 1998

by David Parry

Englishman David Parry lived in Tokyo from 1980 to 1994 and was a member of TPC from 1986. Currently based in Düsseldorf and working as a translator, he returns to Japan electronically via the Internet. A frequent contributor to this publication, he was Newsletter Publisher from late 1988 to early 1990 and began the Ionic Column in 1992. For reasons best known to readers, this column even won a prize and an honorable mention...

Awaiting the doldrums

August can be a slow month, but I have been kept as busy as always after returning from holiday at the end of July. So when am I going to find the time to reinstall some programs or new ones such as Web Whacker, figure out how to use the new ones, and sort out my hard disk with a view to archiving some of the more antique files onto a CD-ROM?

One of the translation jobs that came in during the belated warm weather in August provided a certain amount of head-scratching. A translation job arrived in the form of seven WinWord files on a home-made CD-ROM. How was I supposed to return the work once I had finished it? No problem, as it happens; I should be able to return the job in compressed form on a few diskettes. The two largest files weigh in at over 30 MB apiece but they squish down to less than a floppy-full each. And the second problem was how to print them out and overwrite them. Only four of the files would load onto the PC with Windows 95.

Keep it short

My immediate reaction was to panic and ask for a new set of files, but the customer swore blind that everything was OK and it worked on the corporate server. And what operating system graced this system, I enquired gently. It turned out that the customer was using NT, and not the Windows 95 I had assumed from the long file names. I had tried to load the same CD-ROM on my Windows 3.1 system, but could not get into the sub-directories. I went back to the Windows 95 system, and spotted that the directories used long file names which present an insuperable barrier to versions of DOS before 7.0. In the end I had to transfer the files to diskette after ZIPping them down to fit; I could not change the directory name because a standard CD-ROM cannot be rewritten. Once I had the files fit for loading into the older system, I was able to load and edit the remaining three files under Windows 3.1.

I'll repeat what I said to the customer; it is always safest to stick to old-fashioned cryptic DOS file names and sub-directory names if you are sending files to someone else. Never assume that the lucky recipient is using Windows 95, 98 or NT.

The Program Files problem

One other aspect of long directory names is that some programs also cannot recognize them. Windows 95 creates a Program Files sub-directory as the intended repository for all programs, but older programs cannot get into that directory and need to have a directory of their own somewhere else. Even newer programs such as Servant Salamander have the same problem. Would Windows 95/98 allow this Program Files directory to be renamed, or is it a system directory that must exist under that name, in the same way as the GEM Desktop had a fixed set of directories that it always created?

Once again, a quick plug for Servant Salamander, which is a Windows version of Norton Commander and shows how pathetic Windows Explorer is.

Sudden death

I still do not know if the fact that the files were created on an NT system is part of the problem. One file that refused to load under Windows 95 also died mysteriously after I had spent two days editing it. After I had saved it and quit Windows in the normal way, I was unable to open the file again the next day.

A friend suggested a solution that saved at least part of my work; I opened the file in WordPad and was able to save it again as ASCII text to overwrite a new version of the original file. WordPad was evidently unable to cope with coloured text and hidden text, and the original file had contained both, plus it appeared that the formatting and page breaks had changed. But WordPad did save the day to some extent at least. Give it a try if WinWord cannot tackle a file. It is worth knowing things like that if you have to mount a rescue operation on a valuable file.

The incident showed at least two limitations of CD-ROMs, namely that you cannot edit them if something goes wrong, and that you cannot use them to return very large files. Why did the customer not use a Zip diskette, which is the de facto standard?

Not so SuperDisk?

Looking at Zip drives and equivalents, I went hunting on the Web for information about the Imation SuperDisk. (Last-minute note: the latest PC Magazine has a review of an external drive of the same type but made by Maxell.) This offers 120 MB in a diskette that is physically like a 3.5" floppy and is much tougher than a Zip disk, while the same drive can also be used for standard 3.5" floppies. But neither the drive nor the media are that cheap at the moment, and you need either a recent PC that has a BIOS that recognizes these drives, or else an add-on card. When I discussed this drive with Roland Hechtenberg, who valiantly mails out the TPC newsletter every month, he commented that a 200 MB drive might be on the way from a competitor and it would be best to wait and see.

Too early for DVD?

The same seems to apply to DVD at the moment. DVD looked attractive when I was looking into various forms of mass storage for archival storage and fast offline storage, but it is read-only at the moment and the hardware is not yet fully standardized. Some, or maybe most, DVD drives can read CD-ROMs, so they will be the best choice in the future. In the meantime, we are promised CD-ROM drives of up to 100X before long. This dizzy speed is not achieved by rotational speeds more appropriate to a gas centrifuge for uranium separation, but by reading several tracks simultaneously with the use of multiple read heads. Why did nobody think of it earlier?

Jaz vs. SparQ

My external Jaz drive continues to remain aloof from my PC system. I have tried installing it on both of the PCs, with both the Adaptec and the NCR controllers, and under both forms of Windows. A total lack of success makes me to wonder if it has been damaged, and if so, how. The manual warns against starting it up with a cartridge in the drive, and this has happened at least once. But if that will damage the drive, then it will become a casualty very quickly if you have a power failure or just forget to unload the cartridge before switching off.

The new SparQ from SyQuest is similar to the Jaz drive in concept and capacity but is priced to undercut it substantially. The SparQ is available either as an internal IDE drive or an external drive that is connected through the parallel port. The disks are also 1 GB, but at a third of the price of a Jaz disk. The transfer rates are slightly lower for the IDE version.

Fried data

If the Jaz does not work, I'll just sell it and get a SparQ or two. My ruminations on the best form of offline backup on the Internet produced a number of helpful comments, mainly from Roland. One option would be a second hard disk. This would not be that expensive on an IDE system, it is much faster than any of the relatively lethargic removable media, and it would be easy to set up. The only problem is that it does not help if there is burglary or a fire in the office, or even a catastrophic power surge that fries everything in its path. I still remember how my Polywell 386/33 was hit by lightning in Tokyo about five years ago now and how the hard disk died some weeks later as a direct result. I replaced that disk with an external SCSI disk that died from another power surge, this time in Düsseldorf. This kind of thing does happen.

Burnt data

Another suggestion was to get a CD-ROM burner and to make my backups on CD-ROM. The hardware is getting cheaper, the disks themselves are very cheap, but I don't really want a growing pile of backup disks that cannot be reused. On the other hand, I plan to do something like this with my older master disks for software that did not come on CD-ROM, and also to store all the files that I still have on 5.25" diskettes. One of the PCs still has the 5.25" floppy disk drive that was installed on each PC I have owned, but I don't think I have put even a single diskette into it on the newest system.

In theory, a bootable CD-ROM would get round some of the problems with different versions of Windows, but it would be very difficult to create. The worst part is that Windows itself and many Windows programs hard-code drive and sub-directory references for programs and INI files and data. A shining exception is FrameMaker, which simply looks at sub-directories in a relative sort of way, so it can recognize that its data is one sub-directory down below the current directory of the drive that it is installed on, for example, as opposed to something like C:\FRAME\DATA\NEWJOB.

First looks at Windows 98

I did say before that I would report on Windows 98 when I got it running. What held me up was the need to use System Commander to spare my Windows 3.1 from the ravages of progress, and the need to back up the hard disk before installing System Commander. This was delayed by the problems with the Jaz disk, but finally my friend solved the backup problem by copying my files over onto a spare hard disk in a removable bay.

One comment here: I got rid of the removable bays after I found that they made my systems more unstable due to the additional electrical contacts. This may not apply in all cases, but I remain mistrustful.

The first impression is the cosmetic changes, such as graduated shading in the coloured header bars and the way the menus pop out sideways. The latter I find trying on the eyes. The next job will be to get all the screen drivers loaded and to install some programs.

The problems with the seven files make it clear that I should keep a Windows 3.1 system around for a while, although I plan to move over to Windows 98 for most of my work before long. My friend commented that he could set up an "unofficial" version of Windows NT for me on a separate partition, which is of long-term interest, but first I want the basic systems working properly!

In the last column I also mentioned that I was getting a second Contour mouse so that I could set up the Raritan CompuSwitch to switch the monitor, keyboard and mouse. (Publisher's Note: We couldn't fit this last month, so please see David's Raritan comments at the end of this column.) Well, two out of three isn't bad. The two mice are both connected directly to the PCs. The CompuSwitch requires a Microsoft PS/2 mouse for input. The Contour serial mouse can be switched to two-button input so that it is recognized as a Microsoft mouse, but the Contour PS/2 mouse is fixed for three-button input and the emulator does not recognize it. The situation now is that I have two mice to hand, and I have to remember which is which. But the convenience of being able to switch between the PCs makes up for that. An electronic printer switcher is on the way and will be installed by the time this article is printed.

My prayers answered?

For some time now I had wanted to reinstall ISDN, especially since the Compuserve nodes in Germany now run at the full ISDN speed, but I did not have the time. Just a couple of days ago I got a message from the typist who transcribes my dictated translations to say that he was going to have ISDN installed. I made some cautionary comments and waited for a tale of woe next day.

Next day he called up, and he evidently had ISDN already installed since his number appeared on my phone window. I braced myself for a tale of woe, but everything was working OK apart from one minor problem. Fine, but what about Compuserve, I asked. That was the first thing to be set up, came the reply. This astounded me, since I recalled e-mail from Richard Boomgaarden (a German translator who lived in Tokyo for many years before returning to Hamburg not long after I moved to Germany) about his failure to set up the Fritz! ISDN card. How had he done this?

The technician just set it up for me, he said. I gaped for a moment, recalling the procession of techies and consultants who had worked with varying degrees of success on the PCs in the office I share, and then recovered myself sufficiently to ask for his name. I hope to be able report that I have ISDN again in the next Ionic Column!

Since the transcriber has also recently acquired a brand-new PC that is powerful enough to run the Boomerang PC-based dictation machine, I will look at installing that in about two months once I have got all the various hardware and software set up on both PCs. With ISDN it is possible to send even relatively large voice files through Compuserve, and even quicker by a direct link, since we both have the same Fritz! ISDN cards. I will still keep the Grundig dictation machine though, just in case!

***** Raritan section not run last month:

Only connect

I mentioned that I was attempting to link two PCs with an electronic switching unit. The one that was recommended was the Raritan CompuSwitch, which is the kind of product often used to control multiple network servers. You do not need a monitor, keyboard and mouse for each PC, since such PCs are "running blind" most of the time and you only need to see what is going on to check that all is OK or to carry out maintenance or diagnostics. Thus there are switching devices to allow the system administrator to switch between PCs without crashing them.

Spoilt brats

The problem is that DOS gets cranky if it cannot "see" the keyboard at all times. It also gets restless if the monitor and mouse go away. A Netware server was relatively tolerant of such matters, but all flavors of Windows protest violently. As yet I do not have any personal experience of Windows NT, but Windows 95 winges and whines like a spoilt infant robbed of its rattle the moment any hardware is taken away. That makes it a little hard to swap printers, and especially the newer HP printers with the bi-directional port that lets Windows know at once if the printer has gone AWOL.

Cheap and cheerful

Mechanical switchers are fine up to a point. Previously I had used one of these mechanical switch boxes with an old monochrome monitor to select between a PC running a BBS under DOS and a Novell Netware server. Both screens were the same resolution, so there was no noisy switching inside the monitor (my big Hitachi 19" and many top-end monitors of all sizes pop and sizzle when a relay operates whenever the screen resolution changes), and no mice were attached. The screen image shifted a little to one side after switching over once, but it was otherwise OK. The monitor was old and cheap and operated at a fairly low resolution, so I was not unduly worried about it getting fried by arcing. In any case it was not switched over much. But on a system like my current one I would not switch a big color monitor over once the system has been powered up.

OK up to a point

Brief tests a few months ago with my old 15" color monitor and a three-way mechanical switch box established that I could power up both PCs and switch them over, but the first PC would hang and had to be rebooted. Hardly satisfactory. The Raritan CompuSwitch fudges the mouse and keyboard drivers electronically, telling Windows that everything is still there. Electronic switching also means no flashover and arcing.

Let there be mice

The unit arrived a week ago and I got it working on one PC, with one significant exception. The mouse would not work. The system did not hang, but I had no mouse. I first tried with the Contour Mouse set to native three-button mode. No joy. So I reset the mouse drivers for a Microsoft and pushed over the button on the mouse to let it emulate a Microsoft rodent. Normally this works 100%, but not in this case. My frown deepened, I connected a real bona fide, honest to God, Redmond-born Micro-rat. Still nary a twitch of the cursor. Since all else had failed, it was clearly time to peek at the manual - the secret last-resort weapon of every good computer jock. There it states that you need a PS/2 mouse.

CompuJoy had supplied all the adapters and cables that I needed, including the octopus-like thing to connect between the switch and the keyboard, mouse and VGA ports on the PC, and not forgetting a serial to PS/2 adapter for the mouse. My conclusion: you need a real PS/2 mouse, and nothing else. A quick tour of the Contour Designs Web site - very quick with ADSL - revealed that they have a distributor for Germany and an order was on its way in no time at all. At least I will have a spare Contour mouse, and the PC with the ATX motherboard has a PS/2 mouse port. As it is, I cannot remember for sure if I tried running the mouse from that port with the adapter, but I believe that I did, found that it did not work, and had to install the mouse on the serial port.

A general comment; it is useful to have at least one spare mouse around, especially a serial one if your system uses one of the other types. Luckily there is a high degree of compatibility in software terms, so there is only the matter of choosing Microsoft or Logitech. It is also useful to have one of each, if only to have them available to attach to somebody else's system if you are not sure what was installed.

Over the years one accumulates a huge box of toys with cables and connectors of all sorts. It is always worth collecting these things if you can get them cheap, or for free, or by cannibalizing old computers. The latter can also be a useful source of spare bolts and screws. Other things to take out are jumpers and SCSI terminators (the little cockroach-like ones installed on the SCSI controller itself; very hard to find separately at a shop) and blanking plates. In the past I ended up with a pile of the things after adding various cards, but now some PCs have the slots blocked off with the metal of the case itself, pre-cut and perforated so that you can wrench the plate off to be able to use the slot. Too bad if you take the card out later and don't have a spare blanking plate.

Comments or feedback or more information?  Contact me on Compuserve on 100575,2573


© Algorithmica Japonica Copyright Notice: Copyright of material rests with the individual author. Articles may be reprinted by other user groups if the author and original publication are credited. Any other reproduction or use of material herein is prohibited without prior written permission from TPC. The mention of names of products without indication of Trademark or Registered Trademark status in no way implies that these products are not so protected by law.

Algorithmica Japonica

September, 1998

The Newsletter of the Tokyo PC Users Group

Submissions : Editor

Tokyo PC Users Group, Post Office Box 103, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo 150-8691, JAPAN